War and Peace

I think it was Laurens van der Post who wrote that “he who has no story to tell has no life to live”. Or something like that, anyway.

I remembered it while preaching at the re-dedication of a World War One memorial window in a church in Keighley yesterday afternoon. Unusually, the window had been put in in 1917 – before the war had ended, rather than in response to its eventual conclusion and once the killing had ceased. Perhaps that is why, instead of having some saintly or heavenly figure at its heart, it has a crucified Jesus next to a dead soldier in the trenches. God is to be found in the place where the pain and suffering are most acute – and not a million miles above contradiction, maintaining his purity from all the muck and bullets of human misery.

Contrary to the prejudice of some cynics, Christianity is rooted in the God who opts into the world and does not exempt himself from it. This has two implications: (a) God is not unaware of the fact that his presence does not exempt either God or the rest of us from the consequences of the decisions we make in the world we shape; and (b) those who bear his name (that is, in a Hebraic sense, who assume his character) can do no other than get stuck into that same world, whatever the cost. Christian commitment can never be an escape into some self-preserving fantasy or private piety, but always compels us to love the world and live in it now. (As the biblical narrative keeps emphasising, 'heaven' comes to us; we do not go to it. Christian discipleship is not simply about 'getting to heaven when I die'.)

However, the reason van der Post's line came to me was that the re-dedication of the restored window was preceded by the reading of the names of the fallen of that parish (All Saints, Keighley). Not only were all seventeen names read out, but a short biography of each one. Well, of all but one. There was something to say about sixteen of them – where they lived, who their parents were, when/where they died – but of one there was nothing to add to the name.

Who was 2nd Lieutenant SA Baker?

Go to any war cemetery – especially in France or Belgium – and the sheer number of crosses and stones beggars belief. Yet, as at Bayeux, there are also thousands of names engraved in arches and on walls – names of those whose remains were never found (or, maybe, identified). We can stand and stare, but all we see is faceless names of people who once lived and breathed and occupied space on this planet.

So, who was 2nd Lieutenant SA Baker?

It matters because the emptiness behind the name – the lack of a story, if you like – confronts us with a question: what value does he have if we know nothing about him? Was his life really nothing? Did he leave no lasting mark on this world? It is the same question we ask when confronted by a photograph of a pile of bodies in a concentration camp – anonymous, heaped, discarded flesh: the baby lying atop the pile had little or no life and will never be known or identified.

Christians say two things about all this. First, that every human being is made in the image of God and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Each person has value not because someone else loves them or says they matter; when all that is stripped away, they still matter. Secondly, the cross, planted in the rubbish tip outside the place of acceptable society (the city), absorbs the pain and doesn't throw it back at the world which caused it. The cycle of violence is broken here. And, just a couple of days later, the world would be offered the hint that violence, power, destruction and death do not have the final word after all; God, who made us in his image, does… and that word is 'resurrection'.

This afternoon I recalled two places I have visited in the last couple of decades. The first was a set of trenches on the Maginot Line in eastern France. I stood there with a friend (and our families) who happened to be German and an officer in the Luftwaffe. A generation before and we would have been killing each other. The second is a small church that now serves as a memorial to the fallen of a small town. Mounted on the walls are wooden shields in which are engraved the names of hundreds of people who died in the last war. This church, of St Peter, is to be found in the Bavarian town of Lindau on Lake Constance.

Every name belonged to a person who belonged to some family somewhere. Each one had a face and a mother and a father and a place of belonging. Each one suckled at someone's breast with eyes looking at them in love and imagining a future. Each one had a place and a name. Each one had a story, even if we can't now remember it.

The names matter. Especially that of 2nd Lieutenant SA Baker.


There is something about English culture that is self-destructive. We are expert at missing the point and getting proportion wrong. The BBC is one of the most respected news organisation in the world, but we just love pulling it down. And some of those gleefully doing the demolition are precisely those who couldn’t command respect if it was nailed to them.

So, George Entwistle falls on his sword after only 54 days in the top job. Maybe, for pragmatic reasons, he was wise to go. But, it must be obvious that anyone coming into what he had dumped on him was going to struggle to keep the show going – especially as a major part of his brief was to oversee substantial change in the way the BBC is run. Almost every voice today combines horror at Newsnight‘s disastrous editorial choices (something to do with removing the top editor recently?) with total respect for a good, competent and honourable man.

So, what good has been done by his resignation? And do we really think that the rolling of further heads will do anything to resolve the problems and strengthen BBC editorial processes – rather than simply create further lacunae in both structure and confidence?

Of course, all this is put into context by today’s acts of remembrance. The narrative against which we measure our honourability as a society is a mixed one of conflict and peace, success and failure. No one can look back honestly at British history without recognising both glory and dishonour – violence runs through it like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. If we didn’t have Remembrance Day, we would have to invent it – because we need to step back at least one day each year and remember our story, how we came to be where we are, and the cost (in every respect) of getting here.

In Bradford this morning we stood around the Cenotaph under cloudless blue skies and watched in silence as the families of those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan came forward and placed wreaths and crosses against photographs of their young men. The poignancy of that kiss transferred from a mother’s lips to the face of a son who will never grow old or weary. It was almost too much. These aren’t just names etched into stone or bronze; these are too immediate, too present in their absence.

Getting these events right is not easy. How do we remember the fallen and those who sacrificed so much so long ago… whilst avoiding any romanticism, blind patriotism, escapist fantasy or fictionalising of history? We did it through prayers of sorrow and recognition, pledges of commitment to peace and human flourishing, statements of reconciliation and mutuality. Easily spoken, hard to do.

The point for me in all this (which is why I am recording it here for the sake of my own memory) is that reconciliation can only come from a courageously honest recognition of the messed-up-ness of human life and history. I served on the intelligence side of the Falklands War in 1982 and still have memories of the moral ambiguities involved in that. But, the narrative I (as a Christian) am held to is one that calls us to give up our life in order that the world might see who and how God is – lived out in the flesh and blood of those who bear his name (and, therefore, his character). It is shaped like a cross.

The BBC will survive because there are enough sensible people around who take a long-term view and see the detail of the current aberration only in the context of the enormous canvas of good the BBC does and is. And Remembrance Day will also drag our consciousness away from romanticism and escapism into the brutally real facing up to what human beings do to each other in the complicated name of ‘power’.

Some years ago, when we were camping in Normandy, I took my then young (and younger) son to visit a huge World War One cemetery. We both sat in silence before the enormity of death laid out over silent acres. It isn’t good poetry, but this is what I wrote on a scrap of paper while sitting on the wall:

A field of white stones

and simple crosses

with wishful words

and solemn epitaphs.

Known unto God means

we hadn’t a clue who he was.

Just another mangled inconnu

in a field of bloody might-have-beens.

Rest in peace sounds like an apology

for the hostility and brutality

of his untimely death.

I did not know him,

nor do I know those who miss him,

who still, half a world away,

miss the sound of his voice

and hear the agony of his eternal silence.

But I, also an inconnu, a nobody,

whisper an apology at his space,

and pray silently

for never again

and not for mine.

PoppyNovember is a sombre month – despite me having yet another birthday in it. The remembering of deceased family and friends at All Saints gives way to a weird celebration of the (failed) Gunpowder Plot (and its religious undertones) which in turn rolls us on to Remembrance Day.

Even as a child I wondered why we had Remembrance Day on the day that the Armistice was signed: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. After all, it was the disaster of this – and the Treaty of Versailles – that led to the festering grievance of Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, feeding Hitler’s thirst for revenge on a Europe that had ‘stabbed Germany in the back’ by unjustly demanding of it an unconditional surrender and full admission of guilt. In other words, we celebrate the desire to end war on a day when the seeds of the Second World War were sown by an injustice the potential consequences of which were not imagined.

The point of making this observation, however, is that human beings very easily forget their history and only remember those bits that reinforce the prejudices we hold in our understanding of the contemporary world. The corruption of the Weimar Republic, coupled with weak government, provided the fertile breeding ground for a National Socialism that offered solutions to today’s ‘problems’ while allowing people to ignore the big pool in which Nazi ideology itself swam.

In other words, sort out the economy now (reduce unemployment, end inflation, restore order and build houses, roads and factories, etc) and we will ignore the unpleasant fact that the ‘ordering’ party has a world view that idealises and then privileges a particular race over against other races. Ignore the fact that this racial understanding of German identity was historical and scientific nonsense/romanticism: power was given away to the guys who would put cash in our pockets and food in our bellies.

Show me a fascist who has ever won an argument. Show me a fascist who didn’t grab power with violence, exploiting a weak democratic system by ‘restoring order’ to its people. History is always in danger of repeating itself wherever there is economic need, political weakness and people prepared to give power away in order to solve a different problem now.

I thought about this while at St Mary, Addington, this morning, knowing that the BNP would be wanting to lay a wreath at the War Memorial afterwards. I read a poem I wrote in Normandy in 1996 (and put on this blog) and told how I had been snubbed last year in Germany.

IMG_9504I had preached in Meissen Cathedral and after the service stood at the door and spoke with most of the 200 or so people there. Towards the end an elderly man came out and stood with his hands by his side and told me he could not bring himself to shake hands with an English bishop who had (wrongly) been invited to preach in this German Cathedral. I asked him why not. He replied that he came from Dresden and could not forgive what the Allies had done to that city during 13-15 February 1945 – he called it a ‘war crime’. I responded that I also think it was a war crime (for reasons too long to go into here), but that my grandparents had been bombed out (and their children evacuated) in Liverpool – a city devastated by German bombers and one that is still recovering even 60 years after the War ended. There are no winners in war, but there are many casualties. After a silence he extended his hand and wished me well before he walked off to his car.

IMG_9521Remembrance Day always reminds me that we don’t emerge from a historical vacuum. Tomorrow will see the 20th anniversary of the fall of part of Hitler’s legacy: the Berlin Wall as a symbol of a divided Germany and a divided world. Generations suffered the consequences of decisions made by powermongers who were having to sort out the problems of the moment as well as trying to prevent these solutions creating further (and often unanticipated) problems later.

Which is why I have asked elsewhere what a ‘won’ war would look like. It is never straightforward and time never stands still for us to declare that a ‘clean’ point has been reached.

Two passages from the Bible stand out for me today. In Deuteronomy 26 ‘God’s people’ are commanded to grow their crops (leaving the edges of their crop fields for the ‘aliens, strangers, asylum seekers, immigrant, powerless, poor, dispossessed, etc.’), bring the first ten per cent of their harvest to the priest and recite a creed. This creed is probably the oldest form of credal statement we find in the Hebrew Scriptures and it begins with the acknowledgement that “my father was a wandering Aramaean…”. In other words, when you bring the fruit of your hard work to the priest you must first acknowledge in word and action that we are all ‘pilgrims’ on a journey, that what we have is ‘gift’ and that we have obligations under God for the poor, the aliens/foreigners and the dispossessed. The lesson is powerful: ‘never ever forget your story – that once you too were aliens and dispossessed.’

The seocnd passage is from Mark 1 in which Jesus tells his people that God has good news for them. It is not (as they think it is) that the Romans are going and their problems are about to end, but, rather, that they are going to have to radically change the way they look, see and think about God, the world and us … and then live differently in the world in which we find ourselves. ‘Repent’ means ‘change your mind-set’ – which doesn’t sound like ‘comfortable news’ even if it ultimately is ‘good news’ for other people.

Dresden 1945If we didn’t have Remembrance Day, we’d have to invent it. We need it to put the present in perspective and to remind us that solving today’s problems is not the only priority – that selective remembering or short-term thinking only leads to longer-term problems that might be worse. Of course, it also encourages us to cease romanticising the cost of conflict and recognise the pain of those who are bereaved … and those who bear the scars of their experience of conflict and find it hard to return ‘home’ to ‘safety’.